A funny thing happened on the way to business as usual earlier this month when the 116th Congress convened. During the midst of a highly partisan shutdown fight, the House of Representatives voted almost unanimously in favor of creating a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress in the mold of past efforts that have transformed the legislative branch.
You might have missed this harbinger of hope in the midst of polarization across the country, but it reminded me of South Africa during the height of apartheid in 1985, when I was working on a team hoping to facilitate change there. At the time, Nelson Mandela was in prison. The government security apparatus was in full control. The African National Congress was outlawed, and many of those I met were on the run from police. Yet, in little known efforts to bridge divides and find common ground, people were laying the ground for a largely peaceful revolution in South Africa.
Within five years, Mandela was released from prison. Four years later, he was president after a constitution was agreed by all parties that ended apartheid forever. The parallels to the United States today are striking. Never has our body politic sunk so low in the eyes of the world. The public approval rating for Congress has dropped from 72 percent in 1958 down to 10 percent today. Not since the Civil War have divisions looked more unbridgeable or cost us more. It comes as no surprise that calls to drain the swamp or to reform Congress get huge cheers from constituents.
What is surprising here is how many members of Congress really share this frustration and even similar thoughts on what to do about it. In more than 60 interviews with House lawmakers from across the political spectrum over the past nine months, it was often hard to remember who was in which party. The complaints were much the same. The leadership and lobbyists write bills with little or no input from rank and file members.
In monolithic national parties, individual members of Congress are just another vote on the tally. Woe to any lawmaker who dares to stray from the prescribed path, as your committee assignments and party funds can suddenly disappear, while an anonymously funded opponent can just as suddenly appear to run against you in the next primary election. As one member of Congress summer it up, “We might as well be potted plants!”
The new select committee, chaired by Representative Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerThe tale of the last bipartisan unicorns Head of House Office of Diversity and Inclusion urges more staff diversity House lawmakers roll out bill to invest 0 million in state and local cybersecurity MORE, offers hope. It will, however, be a steep climb. Just as in South Africa, profound reforms are needed. Select committee members will need to push beyond current ideas and positions and work together to invent solutions neither party could imagine on its own. Just like in South Africa, this will require innovative and inclusive processes that allow members to bridge divides.
According to the members I spoke to, if the select committee succeeds, Congress can reclaim its constitutional role as a coequal branch, capable of exercising independence and using its differences to fuel constructive debate. If the select committee succeeds, members will be able to spend more time deliberating policy and crafting effective legislation, rather than “dialing for dollars” 40 hours a week as they feel compelled to do.
Their political interests will be most closely aligned with the interests of the majority of the constituents in their district, rather than just a small number of party activists or large donors who may not even be from the same state. Members will engage in timely and considered authorization, appropriation, and budgeting deliberations focused on long term fiscal responsibility and safeguarding the welfare of our future generations.
Committees will become cornerstones of effective deliberations with necessary staff support to balance the vast resources of the executive branch and lobbyists. Members will be able to explore ways for Congress and the federal government to engage proactively, interactively, and productively with the electorate to foster mutual understanding of the needs and policy options for the people, and to counter propaganda, misinformation campaigns, and distorted narratives from other sources.
Those who benefit from the current system on Capitol Hill will surely tell members of the select committee that such outcomes are too difficult and push them to focus only on easy or noncontroversial half measures. We as citizens need to do everything we can to give the members serving on this select committee, and those who will vote on its recommendations, the encouragement and public support they will need to reclaim the proper constitutional role of Congress they so desire and to enact it responsibly.
Bruce Patton is a founder and fellow with the Harvard Negotiation Project, leader of the Rebuild Congress Initiative, and author of “Getting to Yes and Difficult Conversations.” He worked with all parties and trained facilitators for the constitutional negotiations that ended apartheid in South Africa.